Aaron Hutcheson has suffered from nightmares for most of the 11 years that have passed since his two best friends were killed in West Memphis. He recently joined the Army and hopes this will help him get his life on track.
What, exactly, Hutcheson told police officers in his first interviews will never be known. The whole affair began as a result of a coincidence.
Vicki Hutcheson was scheduled to report to the Marion police station on the afternoon of May 6, the day after the murders, but before the three bodies had been discovered.
(Hutcheson had taken a lie detector test after employers at the truck stop where she worked believed she might be responsible for overcharge on a credit card. She was reporting to the police department to learn the outcome of the investigation. She was cleared, but also fired.)
Hutcheson brought Aaron with her to the police station. When a police officer learned that two of the missing boys were Aaron’s best friends, he began to ask Aaron questions.
According to the officer, Donald Bray, who talked to Aaron when his mother wasn’t present, Aaron told him things about the murder scene that only someone who had been there would know. This included the fact that two of the boys had drowned.
Is this accurate? Today, 11 years later, Aaron can no longer be sure he actually witnessed the murders.
There’s no doubt that after several interviews he told police that he did, but after daily sessions with therapists, nightly bad dreams and the passage of 11 years, he says he simply no longer knows whether he was at the scene or whether, in his shock at the brutal slayings of his best friends, he only thought he had been at the scene.
There are many inconsistencies among Aaron’s versions of what happened, leaving no doubt that he imagined or made up at least part of the story.
But was he at the murder scene?
Hutcheson said Bray told her that Aaron knew the boys had been hog-tied, and that only someone at the scene could have known that. Yet, in his first tape-recorded interview with police, on August 25, there was the following exchange.
First, Detective Bryn Ridge asks Aaron if any of his friends have told him what they think happened.
Aaron: Uh-h (no).
Ridge: Nobody has told you?
Aaron: Un-un (no) nobody even knows that … that I know what really happened. … What I think happened.
Ridge: Do you know what really happened?
Aaron: I know most of it.
Aaron: I think they went down there, they uh, the man the men seen them, and that white tank top man, that had on the white tank top, he told the rest of the men to hold them or something and probably did it.
Ridge did not seem to pick up on the fact that Aaron was no longer sure he had actually seen the murders.
Aaron says he knows what happened – "what I think happened."
He says he "thinks" the boys "went down there" and were discovered, and that the man in the white tank top "probably" killed them.
Eventually, Aaron gives an explanation for his knowledge of the case that the police choose to overlook – news media.
Ridge asks Aaron what he thinks should be done to the murderers when they are caught.
Aaron: I told my mom, that the police should do what they did to Michael, Chris and Steve.
Aaron: ’Cause I … they shouldn’t really even do it to kids that age.
Ridge: Oh, what did you hear got done to the boys?
Aaron: They got rap … they got raped and they got beaten to death, and they got drowned.
Aaron: See they hogged tied them and then put bricks on them so they wouldn’t float. [Note: The boys’ bodies were held down by sticks, not bricks.]
Aaron: That’s what I think, that’s what I heard that said.
Ridge: Who told you that?
Aaron: Nobody. I just, I heard that from the news.
Aaron: And um, Diane … Diane, Michael’s mom, said that she seen his face and it had knife stabs on it.
Aaron: On him.
Ridge: Okay, you said that they were hogged tied, now how … how do you think hogged tied is?
Aaron: They put their feet together and their arms together like that, ’cause I been took [to the] rodeo. They have kids and hog and if you tie a hog you get two dollars. I … I always know how to do that.
In this exchange, Aaron not only makes it clear that he, like many others in the area, had heard rumors that spread like wildfire about the case, he made a revealing mistake about the evidence. It was his description of how the boys were hog-tied.
He made the assumption most children or adults would make if they heard that someone had been hog-tied. He assumed the murderers had "put their feet together and their arms together…."
It would seem that the terrible way that the boys were actually tied up would make a lasting impression on anyone. In fact, each boy was bound with his back bowed, left wrist tied to left ankle, and right wrist to right ankle.
'Happy in hell'
Aaron, who is now 19, is convinced the three boys were killed by Christopher Byers’ stepfather, Mark Byers. West Memphis officials have acknowledged that Byers, a former drug informant, once was considered a suspect. He was never charged. Aaron contends Mark Byers hated kids.
Aaron is sure he told the police in the first interviews about Mark Byers. His mother also recalls that, but adds there were so many interviews that she can’t remember details from them all. But she remembers one interview in particular.
She says Detective Gary Gitchell had both her and Marion police officer Donald Bray sign an "affidavit of silence" pledging themselves never to mention that Aaron had named Mark Byers.
"I learned later on there is no such thing as an affidavit of silence," says Hutcheson, "but that’s how he described the document we signed."
At the trial of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, Echols’ attorney, Val Price of Jonesboro, said in court that Aaron had identified Mark Byers as one of the killers. But Gitchell told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal the next day, on Feb. 18, 1994, that Aaron had never implicated Byers.
Aaron is also sure he could not have identified Jessie Misskelley as being one of the killers, because he and Misskelley had been friends and he would have noticed if Misskelley had been a participant in the slayings.
Vicki Hutcheson says shortly after the deaths a bulletin came on television before she could turn it off, saying that three boys had been arrested, including Jessie Misskelley. ("They showed Jessie’s picture and Aaron screamed to the top of his lungs, fell in the floor and said, ‘Jessie did not do that.’ I mean he was screaming. I had to call Judy Hicks [his therapist]. She had to administer a shot to him. No one knows the hell Aaron went through.")
Aaron says he had never seen Damien Echols or Jason Baldwin before, and that the only reason he identified them was to please the police officers interviewing him.
In addition, Victoria Hutcheson says she saw the photo "lineup" police showed Aaron. "I wasn’t allowed in the room but when the door came open for Aaron to leave I saw the photos. They were on a poster board like you have in school.
The picture of Damien was in the middle of the others, and it was much larger than the others. So of course Aaron ‘identified’ Damien. He just wanted to say whatever the police wanted him to say."
Understanding of how easily police can coerce statements, even confessions, from children has grown since 1994. Since 1999 a large number of studies and articles have been published on the subject, and state and federal courts around the country have thrown out convictions based on such statements or confessions.
The detectives failed to ask Aaron the questions that could have verified whether he had actually witnessed the slayings.
In his interview on June 8, Aaron told police he was in a tree and badly injured his back when he fell. "I could hardly walk or get up," he said.
In the version he gave police the next day, the killers hurt Aaron with a rock. The detectives neither asked Aaron about this discrepancy, nor asked him to show them the spots on his back or leg where he had been injured.
Nor did they check his wrists to see if there was any evidence of the ropes Aaron said the killers used to tie him up.
The police, then, chose to believe an eight-year-old boy’s story that he watched five men kill and mutilate three other eight-year-olds; that the killers knew Aaron saw the killings, whereupon they grabbed him and tied him up, but he was then able to untie himself and outrun five adult killers.
With each police interview Aaron’s story became more dramatic and less consistent.
In a version Aaron gave police after the Misskelley trial had started, he said he himself had been forced to dismember the body of his friend, Christopher.
In an interview with Mara Leveritt, which she reported in her 2003 book "Devil’s Knot," Circuit Judge John Fogleman, who was the prosecutor in Misskelley’s trial, admitted that Aaron’s story was not credible. "I had some police officers that were absolutely convinced of his story," he told Leveritt, "and I talked to him a couple of times.
"The first time, I was a little bit believing him. The last time, I guess when he started talking about draining the blood into a bucket, or whatever it was he said, it was so inconsistent and stuff that I got real concerned."
As a result, Fogleman did not subpoena Aaron for testimony.
At the time of the killings, Aaron was also sure that one of the five people he saw was a black man. The boy mentioned a black man with yellow teeth in a maroon-colored car in his very first interview with police.
Police and prosecutors ignored the statements, despite the fact that, at around 8 p.m. on the night the boys disappeared, a black man had entered a Bojangles Restaurant a mile from what would later be discovered to be the crime scene.
According to the restaurant’s manager, the man was covered in blood and mud, and his trousers were soaked with water up to his knees. He entered the women’s restroom where he stayed a considerable time.
The manager called the West Memphis police, but the officer who responded took a perfunctory report from the drive-through window and never entered the restaurant.
Though employees at Bojangles cleaned up the mess later that night, West Memphis police did find blood samples when they finally investigated a few days later. That evidence, however, was lost by the West Memphis Police Department.
Now a young man with intense, dark brown eyes, Aaron Hutcheson says today that he would like to become a lawyer so he could help people avoid the injustice he saw in West Memphis as an eight-year-old child.
He especially resents all the "corrections" the police made when he tried to explain what happened.
"It was like, ‘Naw, are you sure about that Aaron?’ They messed with my words a lot."
Before last Friday night, the saddest, most "depressing" Depression-era story I had read was Horace McCoy's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" However, after watching The Arkansas Repertory Theatre's opening performance of William Inge's "A Loss of Roses," I can attest that this play is as rough and unflinching as that Depression-era tale, or any other.
Perhaps U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin might want to reconsider his earlier decision not to include Republican Rep. Loy Mauch on the list of Republican candidates he'd asked not to use his campaign contributions, having read some of what they'd written.